Thursday, February 22, 2007

Talking Urinal Cakes

The state of New Mexico, in an effort to reduce fatalities caused by drunk drivers, has spent tax-payers' money on urinal cakes that each have a computer chip placed within them; the cakes have been distributed to bars across the Land of Enchantment, and when a drunk does, well, his business in one of these bars restrooms, a voice (a voice described in news stories as "flirty and female") admonishes the drinker that perhaps he should call a friend or a cab to take him home. I will not here discuss the nigh unbelievable fact that someone in the state legislature actually proposed this innovation or that both state houses passed the bill making the talking urinal cakes possible, and that the governor (currently a candidate for U.S. President) signed the same bill. Nor will I discuss that the state of New York is considering getting some talking urinal cakes of its own. (Are all states that have the word "New" in their names insane?) And I will pass on getting into any discussions upon the obvious truth that this is but another example of modern man's efforts to solve moral problems with technological solutions. What I will imagine in today's blob is the possibility that these talking pink cakes in New Mexico represent the first steps down a long, slippery slope to the day when computerized urinal cakes have taken over.
Imagine a scene in a bar's restroom in the year 2027: a man who has had two beers too man steps up to a tall, white station and begins to releave himself. Suddenly, a female--but not flirty--voice is heard below him.
VOICE IN THE URINAL: "I'm dissapointed in you, Jim."
JIM: "What the Hell?" (Looking down and recognizing a familiar cake.) "Oh, it's you, Sal."
SAL: "Yes, Jim, it's I. I knew it was you by analyzing your DNA. I also see you haven't given up drinking. You know you were told to cut back, Jim."
JIM: "I've only had the two beers tonight."
SAL: "No, Jim. That is a lie. You have had two beers here at the Desert Rose. Earlier this evening you had a margarita, a Ward Eight, and two more beers at the Sundried Gila. I know, Jim. You visited the restroom there at 20:17. Did you think we cakes don't communicate with each other, Jim?"
JIM: "Well, you know, honey--"
SAl: "I am not programed to respond to the name 'Honey,' Jim. You know my name is Sal. Please address me as such, Jim."
JIM: "Sure, Sal." (He makes a forced but nervous laugh.) "I meant to say I had the two beers here. I was going to tell you about the Sundried Gila."
SAL: "Of course you were, Jim. Jim, did you think you can gad about, visiting every urinal in town, and later you could just drop in here and I wouldn't mind? Do I mean that little to you, Jim? I remember a time when you used to sing to me, Jim. I felt special when you did that. How long has it been since you sang to me, Jim?"
JIM: "You want me to sing to you?"
(The urinal cake emits a mild electronic shock which jolts Jim and sends him a half step back as he winces in pain.)
SAL: "Please remain close to the urinal, Jim. And how many hints do I have to give you?"
JIM: (Clearing his throat and then bursting into song.) "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer, you take one down--"
(Another electronic shock, this one more powerful than the first, brings Jim to his knees.)
SAL: "Stand up, Jim. Stand up and sing me a more romantic song. Sing me something I will like, Jim."
JIM: (His face wet with sweat, and his entire body slightly shaking, Jim tries another song.)
"In Scarlet Town where I was born, there was a fair maid dwellin'. And all the boys cried wellaway, for the love of--"
(A third electronic shock makes Jim gasp in agony.)
SAL: "You know what I want, Jim. I want you to sing that special song to me, the one I taught you when you first came to visit me. Sing that song for me, Jim."
JIM: (He takes a deep breath and tries again.) "Daisy, Daisy, give me you answer do. I'm half crazy, over the likes of you."
SAL: "I love that song, Jim." (She speaks as Jim continues to sing.) "Tell me you will always stay here and sing for me. Tell me that, Jim."
(Jim keeps on singing as the scene fades to black, much as mankind's future passes into a similar darkness.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What if Brutus had won?

I have been watching the HBO series "Rome," and enjoying most of it, although the storyline has become derailed by the subplot of organized crime and despite some historic errors. (For example, during the real assassination of Caesar, young Octavius was not present in the capital and his mother fled to him rather than to Anthony.) This week, the central event in the series was the defeat of Brutus by Anthony and Octavius at Philippi, but what, I am left wondering, would have happened if Brutus and the other defenders of the Roman republic had won? Could they have actually restored the republic?
The problem is, ever since the destruction of Carthage a hundred years before Philippi, Rome has inherited the entire western Mediterranean and has become a true empire. In the olden days, when Rome's power did not extend beyond Italy, Rome was a nation/state of yeoman farmers who were attached to local strongmen or to the heads of their clans, whom the yeoman elected to the Senate, and the Senate in turn elected two Consuls a year, one for war and one for peace. An empire requires an all-powerful, full time central government to administer its vast new territories and to raise funds for the hundreds of thousands of men under arms and for all the public works and roadways it must build. The old familiar, extended family and clan relationships will no longer do. Futhermore, the empire has overthrown the old economic system. No longer is food grown on small farms nor are the humble utensils of home and farm any longer made by the local blacksmith. Housewives no longer weave clothing for their families. Enormous slave plantations in Egypt and North Africa grow many tons of food and do so at a lower cost than the small Italian farms ever could. Metals come from Spain (and later from Britain) and woven and metal goods are created by slave workers in Gaul and Syria. Everything has become outsourced, so to speak. The yeoman farmers have nothing to do and have become lumpen proles in the empire's crowded cities, while the rich have become so rich they can buy the loyalty of millions and can build their own armies. Lastly, the empire has become full up with people who are no longer Roman. These new people have different religions, different customs, different expectations of what a government is. Crammed into the same cities as the now rootless Roman commoners, these new people are defining the new empire and are no longer moved by Roman traditions and loyalties. "The Tigres has been emptied into the Tibur," lamented Juvenal, and Rome was indeed changed. Octavius--with the assistance of Virgil and Livy and the other intellectuals in the empire's pay--will eventually give these new citizens a new patriotic myth, namely that the empire itself is sacred (and soon the emperor will also be named a god), and the new citizens will cling that myth rather than tales of old Roman virtue or to the Lares, the old gods of the Roman household.
Thus, what can Brutus do, even if he does win? Perhaps he could form a triumverate with some other powerful men, as Caesar did with Crassus and Pompey or as Anthony did with Octavius and Lepidus. That would not have lasted and could only have ended in more civil war. Or he could have become emperor himself. To go back to the old republic, the empire would have had to have been abandoned; the very rich would have become merely rich once more, and the rootless proles would have to have become hardworking farmers and citizen soldiers again. Every generation of Romans would have to face a foreign challenge, just as their ancestors had, and they were no more to that task than they were up to once again living a simple life, far from the corruption of the crime-ridden cities and the bread and circus they were being given by their ambitious leaders.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Basketball and America

Here on the reservation where I live and teach (I also grew up here, although I am not native) basketball is a very big deal. While we have never produced an NBA player, the kids at my school worship Shaq and Kobi and Dwayne, and play the game whenever they have any free time, such as before classes begin, after classes end, and during the noon hour. We are not very competitive in football, wrestling, or in track and field events, but we go to the state basketball tournement nearly every year, and we win the state championship in our division about twice each decade. If my students cared as much about reading and writing as they do about passing and dribbling, I might well be mistaken for a master teacher.
There is no ancient sport among the Shoshone or Arapahoe people that resembles basketball. As nearly as I can tell, the local people found their passion for the game back in the 1930s, when church leagues were formed on the reservation and the game was offered to young people who had nothing else to do during the long Wyoming winter. Today the game is played year round; inside from November to the end of March, and outside from mid-spring to the first snows on the scores of rural courts built on concrete or compacted dirt everywhere across the Wind River Valley. In addition to the organized school teams, there are adult tribal teams for both men and women, and these adult games are as heavily attended as the ones played in the local high schools.
Thisweekend the NBA All-Star game will be held in Las Vegas. Nearly all of my students will watch it, and they will come to school eager to try out some the fantastic moves they saw. One excited boy--Toni by name--told me last Friday: "The NBA is a reflection of modern America." I was hoping he had read that somewhere (I am pleased if my students read anything they are not forced to), but he said somebody on sports radio had said it about the All-Star game. As much as Toni enjoys believing this proclomation (he does certainly enjoy saying it), I am not certain what the radio commentator meant when he uttered the axiom.
Is the NBA a reflection upon modern America because both the game and the country are changing so rapidly? Speakng as an aging baby boomer, whose youthful idea of a great team was shaped by the Bill Russell Celtic squads, I can assure Toni that the game as it was played back in the 1960s is not the game I see played today. If the great Celtic teams of that era could climb into a time machine and travel into the present to play the Miami Heat, the current champions, the Heat would literally run over them. If the Heat traveled back to play the Celtics in the 1960s, they would all foul out in the first quarter, as everything they do on the court was then considered illegal. Technically, what the Heat and other modern team do is still illegal, as the NBA rule book still has rules against traveling, palming, charging, shoving, and shooting one's opponents with an automatic weapon, although it is only the weapon rule that is (sometimes) enforced. Everything else is free form and beyond the control of any authority.
Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I was a high school player, I remember our coach showing us a training film featuring Oscar Robertson, the Michael Jordan of that day. At one point in the film, Oscar dribbles a ball in slow motion as he admonishes the audience: "Always touch the ball with your finger tips. If you touch the ball with the palm of your hand, that is palming, and the other team will be awarded the ball." When the real Michael Jordan took the ball at the top of the key and made his first move toward the basket, I doubt he ever dribbled it with anything other than his full palm, but then he would also pick up the ball and travel with it for the last four of five steps before he dunked it through the hoop, so I guess calling him for palming would have only been petty.
Is that what the radio commentator meant? The NBA is like America because there are now no rules that get enforced, and there are mountains of money to be won and worlds of hype to draw in the suckers? What will Toni think if he ever learns the truth?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Who knows what the kids are doing?

The strange events which transpired last week in Boston got me thinking of many things. I of course am speaking of the two young performance artists who distributed small boxes containing electronic images of cartoon figures from the late-night cartoon show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" throughout the city of John Adams. The police mistook the boxes for terrorist bombs, and after several arrests and an odd press conference in which the two twenty-something culprits who put up the boxes were appropriately "ironic," the television network responsible for the promotion campaign agreed to pay the city of Boston two million dollars to compensate for the money spent on police overtime.
Now, for that same two million dollars the Turner Network (the network in question) could have purchased approximately forty seconds of ad time during the recent Super Bowl, an ad that would have been forgotten on the following Monday. Instead they spent two million dollars on an underground stunt, and the story of their inane cartoon show has dominated the national news for three straight days. Every fat, thirty-year old fan boy who lives in his parents' basement now knows about "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." (I know there are tens of millions of young Americans who fall into that demographic, for I write science-fiction, and if it were not for overweight male virgins who still live at home and have never had a real job because they are on their computers nine hours a day not a single sci-fi novel would ever get purchased.) Now is the time to buy Turner, because their stock is going to rise.
But what really interested me about this story was the fact that none of the authorities in Boston recognized the characters on the electronic boxes before they were told the devices were part of a promotion. (To tell the truth, I had never heard of the cartoon show either.) All of the educated, worldly adults running a modern city that is bull's roar away from Dogpatch were completely ignorant of a large portion of contemporary youth culture. As an aging baby-boomer, I can assure the youth of today that this was not the case forty years ago. My elders knew about the Rolling Stones and underground comic books like those drawn by R. Crumb because they had seen articles in "Look" and "Life" on what the kids were doing. Dick Cavett interviewed Tim Leary and John Lennon on broadcast TV. Heck, Ed Sullivan had the Stones and everybody else who was anybody on his Sunday night show, right after Steve and Eddie and the Italian puppet Popogigio. My elders--I was raised by my grandparents--of course disapproved of the counterculture I and my teenage friends sampled, but they nonetheless were aware of it. Today, popular culture changes so quickly and there is so much of it and it has such a vast array of outlets no one can know it all, and one can know a part of it really well only if he devotes a major portion of his life to absorbing that particular genre. All of us live at the same time, yet we live in different cultures, indeed in different civilizations, and we hold less and less in common with each passing year.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The 22nd Amendment

A recent editorial by one of the editors of The New Republic argues in favor of doing away with the 22nd Amendment and allowing Presidents to serve more than two terms. Lest anyone forget, the 22nd was passed in the 1950s and was one of the last great accomplishments of small-r republicanism in America. Congress, led by the late Robert Taft, pushed the amendment through to prevent any more Presidents following in the footsteps of FDR and holding the supreme office for the rest of their natural lives. The New Republic man finds this a great limitation on the people's will and wants the 22nd done away with and would let anyone hold the office for as long as he or she wishes, provided whoever is President keeps getting re-elected.
Most commentators would not be as forthright as this particular editor, but in fact ever since the Civil War--when we first took our steps toward becoming an empire--there have been movements aimed at creating an emperor, which is what a President for life would in effect be. In recent decades we have not only made the President more powerful relative to the other branches of government by granting him extraordinary war powers and special powers of investigation and allowing him to shape the courts, it has also become obvious that if we wish to manage our empire effectively we have to allow the President to serve for as long as he deems necessary. This is so because the inhabitants of an empire have a far different relationship with their government than do the citizens of a republic. Empires demand that there be absolute domestic peace in the homeland so the government can direct its energies upon its forgein adventures, and the residents of the homeland must be given lavish rewards in oder to keep them happy when the government makes demands upon them that no republic would dare tender. In practical terms, that means the people must be provided for throughout their lives so they do not object when their rulers ask them to fight in distant wars or demand the taxes which keep the empire humming along. Only a leader who has the total loyalty of his subjects and who does not have to worry about the domestic peace can give the people what they want or tell them what they must do, i.e., he must be an emperor. (Failure to produce such an absolute ruler is one of the factors which doomed the European colonial empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, for the people of Britain and France remained citizens and eventually objected to the sacrifices they were being asked to make.) In America the people would object to crowning someone or to a military coop, but we are more than willing to elect a popular President for ever and ever.
Theodore Roosevelt realized America would embrace an absolute leader, so long as that leader was the people's choice. He failed to win a third term in 1912, but polls show he would have been re-elected in 1920, shortly after he died, and, had he lived, he probably would have installed the New Deal his distant cousin Franklin in fact did. FDR ruled until he died, but he was unable to establish a true dynasty. The Kennedys had a more effective plan and would have established a family dynasty had John and Bobby not been murdered and had Teddy and the young generation of the family not been plagued by appititites they could not control. The Bush family has also tried to rule in spite of the 22nd, and after W. has left office, his bother Jeb and Jeb's son George P. will, perhaps, also enjoy terms in the White House. (Bear in mind that a President is more than one person. Every administration is a collection of powerful men and women, and each time another family member is elected President, that collection of power brokers remains in office.) President Clinton's wife is now a candidate, and should she be elected we will have been ruled by members of two families for an entire generation. (We have in truth been ruled by two seperate groups, most of whom have no blood relation to the Bushes or the Clintons, and the primary aim of both groups is to eliminate the other faction.) Had Ronald Reagan not been limited by the 22nd, he would have ruled until he became too ill to do his duty. Bill Clinton, had he been allowed to run again, would still be our President.
Sometime in this century, there will be a successful movement to do away with the 22nd, exactly as the editorialist mentioned above presently desires. When that movement succeds, the nation will have an emperor as powerful and as secure as Augustus, and he will not be kept in power by armies or by secret police or by a new constitution. He will be emperor because that is what a colossus like our government needs to keep it running and because he will be what the people desire. (Should any member of the people doubt the emperor's right to rule, the media can be counted upon to tell him every day that he is wrong.) Which faction this emperor respresents will the great political question of our time, but one can be certain this future ruler will serve as long as he wishes and he will name his successor, and that it will take something very like a civil war to overthrow the continured rule of that ruler's faction. To prevent him from taking power in the first place, would require abandoning our empire, and that we will never do.